The Illiteracy Problem Is Shameful

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Author John Towler, Ph.D.
Original Publication Exchange Magazine

The high cost of illiteracy in the workplace

Note: Although this article was written several years ago, the data provided below was an under-estimation for the time and it is reasonable to believe that the problem was much worse and that it has continued to grow. (See the addendum to this article below, which bears out this assumption)

Probably a quarter of the Canadian population cannot read and understand this article. In the United States, the percentage is greater at about one-third of the population. These figures ought to be grounds for grave concern, immediate action, and an examination of how this has come to pass.

The situation is not only serious and shameful, but it is also costing North Americans billions of dollars in hidden costs. The United States calculates the direct costs alone to its businesses and taxpayers to be at least $2O billion a year, and Canada is probably not far behind.

Just how serious is the problem? Consider these facts:

One million Canadian adults can neither read nor write, and five million read at only a Grade 9 level or below.

25 million American adults cannot read the poison label on a can of pesticide, a newspaper, or a letter from their child's teacher.

35 million read at a "functionally illiterate" level; that is, they can read just enough to scrape by and hide their inabilities. Most are white, native-born citizens.

15% of U.S. high school graduates read at less than the sixth grade level.

One million U.S. teenagers cannot read beyond a Grade 3 level.

85% of U.S. juvenile offenders are functionally illiterate.

75% of the currently unemployed adults in the United States don't read well enough to be retrained for high-tech jobs.

Let's translate these statistics into another, more meaningful form. The examples below were cited by the authors of a U.S. study of adult performance and refer to American adults.

Given a pay cheque and a list of deductions, 26% cannot tell if it is correct.

44% cannot match help wanted ads to their own qualifications.

22% cannot address a letter well enough to make sure it will arrive at its destination.

24% are unable to put a correct return address on an envelope.

Given sales flyers containing prices for new and used products, more than 60% are unable to calculate differences in prices.

20% cannot write a cheque that will be cashed by a bank.

More than 40% cannot make change correctly.

To add another perspective, compare these figures with the reading levels needed to function within our society. There is scarcely any job that doesn't require reading. Even a floor sweeper must be able to read a note telling him or her what area needs cleaning next. A Grade 9 reading level is considered a minimal reading level for most jobs. Indeed, it takes a Grade 9 reading ability just to understand the antidote instructions on a bottle of kitchen lye, a Grade 10 level to be able to read an income tax form, and a Grade 12 level to read an insurance form. Computer, machinery, and policy and procedure manuals normally require reading levels beyond the high school or graduate level.

Most people think of the illiteracy problem purely in terms of the inability to read. To be sure, this is a large part of it, but it is not the entire problem. The same factors which have resulted in a person's reading problems have also contributed to his or her difficulties in reasoning, problem-solving, following instructions, seeing cause and effect relationships, and understanding new processes, technologies and procedures.

These are frustrated, angry individuals, with low self-esteem, who are ashamed of their inabilities and fearful they may be found out. Such people do not make good, productive workers, and they are certainly incapable of being promoted or contributing effectively to their organizations.

Many illiterates (and functional illiterates, as well) have hidden their affliction so well that their bosses have no idea they are in trouble.

Imagine the problems such people face and the effect these must have on them. What would it be like to have your car break down and not be able to call a tow truck because you can't read the street signs to pass on where you are? Imagine not being able to read your child a favorite book. Imagine your fear and frustration when your boss hands you a manual for a new machine and asks you to use it. What happens if you are asked to prepare a written report on something you cannot read well enough to research?

Lest you think that such scenarios are unrealistic, just look at what is already happening. An entire herd of prime beef cattle were destroyed when a feedlot worker fed them poison. He couldn't read and thought he was adding a nutritional supplement to their feed. Several billion dollars is lost each year because of industrial accidents and damage to equipment caused by the inability of workers to read safety warnings, chemical content designations, and operating or maintenance instructions. A major insurance firm reports that 70% of its dictated correspondence must be retyped at least once because secretaries cannot spell, punctuate, and set up the letters.

Some other business costs are not seen as easily. There is a vast, hidden cost and loss of efficiency if potential buyers cannot read your advertising materials.

Similarly, your efforts to maintain good customer relations may be wasted if customers cannot read your correspondence, warranties, policies, instruction books, or other written material. Even within your organization, the cost of illiteracy among your staff could be greater than you think. Many companies are responding to workers' demands to know more about their organizations and be better informed about what is happening. But what good will the best, most professional company newsletters do if a portion of your workforce can't read it?

The illiteracy problem not only exists, but it's also getting worse. What is being done about it? What should you do?

The answer to the first question is "very little and not enough." The United States spends a paltry $1.60 a year to "meet the needs" of each of its illiterate adults. If you think that is low, how do you feel about the fact that the Canadian government spends a meager 50 cents a year on each illiterate?

What can you do about the problem? I have five suggestions:

1. Become aware of the situation and its seriousness. Canadian statistics are harder to come by, but Jonathan Kozol has written an excellent book entitled Illiterate America (New American Library) that presents a cogent and authoritative overview of the American problem.

2. Find out whether your firm has employees who lack necessary literacy skills. Remember that while illiteracy itself is a problem, having staff whose writing or reading skills are not equal to the demands of their jobs can also be a problem. Any industrial psychologist or management firm can help you measure the skills of your people.

3. Correct the situation by offering remedial reading courses to those who need them and by presenting on-site, in-service workshops for staff members who need to hone or develop specialized writing skills. The demand for writing seminars is so great that they are one of the fastest-growing services offered by consulting firms.

4. Insist that governments pay more attention and do more to prevent the spread of illiteracy. Demand that they develop adequate remedial programs, spend more money per illiterate, and ensure that the problem doesn't occur in the first place.

Watch out for the coming technological and general illiteracy among university graduates. While it may be small comfort to think that most illiterates today are in lower-level jobs, what will happen if poorly educated “professionals” fill our middle and senior management positions in the future? Yet this is precisely where we are heading. Our universities are being asked to do more and more with less and less. The equipment is old and getting older, the faculty is increasingly dissatisfied with wages, and the general quality of a university degree is becoming more and more suspect.

We spend more on a convicted felon than we do to educate a university student, and the amount of money spent each year investing in our future workers, leaders, scientists, and technologists is steadily decreasing. Ontario used to be thought of as a province with an excellent system of higher education. Perhaps it still is, but it cannot maintain this standard when it ranks ninth out of 10 provinces in terms of financial support for education.

Illiteracy is already a major problem. Let us hope that this isn't merely the tip of the iceberg.

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Note: Although this article was written over 20 years ago, it appears that little has changed. As of Sept 2008 the CBC printed the following headline "Literacy groups upset with 'devastating' cuts" and reported that "Kim Gillard, executive director of Literacy Newfoundland and Labrador, says her foundation has lost more than $785,000 in funding as part of the government's plan to reduce the national deficit by $1 billion over two years." The article also points out that more "than 64,000 people in Newfoundland and Labrador need help to improve their literacy skills." (http://www.cbc.ca/canada/story/2006/09/28/literacynl-cuts.html)

This is just one area of Canada and one can reasonably assume that this is only the tip of the iceberg and that if the problem exists in one Province, that it exists coast to coast as well.

A year later in 2009, CBC's Metro Morning radio program Andy Barrie spoke with Julia O'Sullivan. She is the Dean of Education at the University of Western Ontario. They discussed the 'new' push to increase literacy amongst students and indicated that those students who were unable to read by Grade 3 fell further and further behind and made up the bulk of the 25% that drop out by Grade 10. Accordingly, O'Sullivan's research has resulted in a recommendation to "extend" literacy programs and the teaching of reading through to Grade 9. She also recommends that Teacher's Colleges focus on how to teach new teachers to promote reading and literacy instruction from their first day on the job. The U of Western Ontario has tripled the amount of time devoted to this type of instruction.

You may listen to the interview here - http://www.cbc.ca/mrl3/8752/toronto/ondemand/audio/sep08rs_TOR.wma

Evidently, despite more than 20 years of data, research, evidence and effort, Canadian schools still manage to allow an unacceptable percentage of children to slip through the system and enter society without the basic and critically-necessary skills to function effectively. If the illiteracy problem was "shameful" when this article was originally written, what adjective shall we use to describe it on the eve of 2010?

John Towler is a Psychologist and the founder of Creative Organizational Design. Please send comments about this article to jtowler@creativeorgdesign.com. For more information, please contact us.

Re-printable with permission.